APU APU Static Business Careers Careers & Learning Leading Forward Podcast

The Great Reshuffle: Managing Change through Culture and Shared Values

Podcast featuring Dr. Marie Gould Harper, Dean, Wallace E. Boston School of Business and
Dr. Stacey Little, Department Chair, Management

The pandemic led to millions of people changing jobs. In this episode, APU’s Dr. Marie Gould Harper talks to Management Department Chair Dr. Stacey Little about what caused employees to reevaluate their careers. Learn why it’s so important for company leaders and human resource managers to create a strong organizational culture that includes trust, communication, transparency so they can adeptly manage the change caused by the pandemic. Also learning the increasing importance of employee growth and development to aid in recruitment and retention.

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Dr. Marie Gould Harper: Welcome to our podcast today. I’m your host, Marie Gould Harper. Today, we are going to talk about The Great Resignation, or The Great Reshuffle. Our guest today is Dr. Stacey Little.

Stacey is the Management Department Chair at American Public University. She graduated from Indiana Institute of Technology, earning a Ph.D. in Global Leadership with a specialty in Organizational Management. She is also a graduate of Indiana University Purdue University, Indianapolis with a Master’s in Business Administration and Saint Mary-of-the-Woods College with a BS in Human Resource Management.

Stacey has taught in higher education since the year 2000. Before teaching, she worked in a wholesale distribution business, gaining experience in areas such as management, sales, marketing, human resource management, and logistics management. Stacey, welcome to our podcast and thank you for joining me.

Dr. Stacey Little: Good morning, Dr. Harper. Thank you for inviting me.

Dr. Marie Gould Harper: Yes. I think we’re going to have a good time because I think the topic is near and dear to both of our hearts. I’m interested in hearing your thoughts on this important topic, and I know you have created courses in the past that have assisted our students—and students in general—with mapping out where do they go next.

So, our topic today is The Great Resignation or The Great Reshuffle. In your opinion, how did we get to this point of The Great Resignation? Your thoughts.

Dr. Stacey Little: I think about this a lot. I think about the impact of a pandemic on this and just, life in general. So, considering how we got to this point, if you think about some employees having time off or maybe working from home and getting to spend some more time with their family, they think, “This is really what I like. This is really what I want to do.”

And then on the other hand, we have those employees who are still being asked to be at work, they didn’t feel safe, they didn’t feel like their organization valued them, their family, or their health and safety. And then, there are just those people who really just had time to reflect and think, “Is this where I want to be? Is this what I want to do or is there something better on the horizon for me?”

Dr. Marie Gould Harper: I totally agree with you. You actually listed out three things that I’ve thought about when I’ve been asked that question, too. I wanted to go over all three of them: Spend time with the family. Do you believe that some of the workers, or former workers, felt as though this is really what work-life balance is all about? And I like this, and so whatever I can do to make this a permanent situation, that’s what I’m going to do.

Dr. Stacey Little: Yes, I agree, because I feel like, with the pandemic, it scared them, and they thought, I may not have a lot of time with my family. I may lose a member, something may happen to me, and they just really considered their own time with their family and their work-life balance. And many of them feeling drained from their work, and even though they would get home, and this is a time you should spend with your family, they were burned out, they were tired.

And so, in consideration of those things, they really like the remote work because it would give them that flexibility. “Maybe I could work four hours in the morning, I could spend some time with my family. After the children go to bed, I could go back to work again.”

Dr. Marie Gould Harper: Exactly, and I also think we have to watch that balance of going back to work as well. I know there are some concerns that people will overwork because it’s more flexible, but I personally believe that, there’s a job to do, and many companies did not recognize that. Some companies are not in a position to look at all jobs in that manner, but it was a matter of, what needs to get done and when does it have to be done by? And as long as the work was completed, productivity increased, and it was a win-win situation for both the employee, as well as the employer.

Now, let’s look at the employer. There have been some individuals that I’ve talked to personally, who have returned to their jobs even if it’s on hybrid schedule. Some of the concerns that the employees have are safety issues, that all employees do not believe the same thing, even if the company has policies, not all are abiding by the rules and regulations, and so there is just this concern of going back into the office because everyone’s not playing on the same field. What are your thoughts about that topic?

Dr. Stacey Little: I’ve thought about this sort of thing as well because if you consider why employees were leaving work, it’s hugely in part to the workplace culture. So, having this strong culture that encompasses trust, communication, transparency, these sort of things are going to make the employees feel better even if they’re going back one day a week or two days a week.

From an employer perspective, along with that communication and transparency, there needs to be more dialogue. Make the employees feel comfortable coming to you and saying, “I don’t feel safe. I don’t feel like we’re all on the same playing field. I don’t feel like we’re all on the same page.” And this should help them better understand where their employees are at and how they can better engage the employees.

Dr. Marie Gould Harper: Oh, I love that. Now, you’ve mentioned something about the culture. I want to tackle that topic a little bit. From what I see, and you and I both have been in the area of human resource management, I unfortunately think, it’s a breakdown in communication and senior leadership has elected not to listen to the employees.

Now, in my opinion, that just means disaster, and I think that’s one of the results of The Great Resignation is because employees are like, “Okay, you have spoken and some of the policies that you are putting in place, as well as your vision, does not fit the lifestyle that I want to lead.”

What do you think is going on in the mind of the senior management teams that they’re not working with some of the employees to find out what is the best culture and fit for the organizations in the new norm?

[Podcast: Leading Forward — Adjusting to the New Normal]

Dr. Stacey Little: I honestly believe it’s kind of that, you know what worked in the past, will work in the future, and we’ll never be where we were, but it’s just hard to get past that. It takes an element of change, and when you have change, you have to buy-in, and even though you could get the employees’ buy-in because you want to listen to them, you want to be more flexible, maybe it’s something higher up that’s constraining or tying the hands of that executive or that high-level manager.

So, I think the first problem is, trying to hang on to the past, hold on to what worked in the past. And the other one is, getting buy-in from everyone, all the stakeholders, to create that change.

Dr. Marie Gould Harper: I’m glad that you said that because I had a thought and I was having a conversation with some employees at a particular company. The CEO came out and basically said, “No, I need everybody back in the office.” And I looked at the age of the individual and I had a thought, and I want to hear your thoughts on my little idea. And what I saw was an older Baby Boomer, who came up the ranks where everyone wanted to go up the career ladder, and a part of going up the career ladder was the accumulation of different departments under that person, and the accumulation of employees reporting for that particular division.

A thought came to my mind is, we’re dealing with a generation that is used to seeing tangible things, therefore, a part of them feeling important as that CEO, is to be able to see the employees. Do you have any thoughts on that particular notion?

Dr. Stacey Little: Yes. Yes, one thing came to mind. As soon as that executive or that high-level manager says, “I need all of you back here and I need you in the seats, and I need you at your desk,” what does that say to the employee? In their mind it says, “I don’t care about your safety. I don’t care about what you want. I don’t value you as an employee. I don’t recognize you as being able to give contribution to the future of this company by seeking your input before we make a decision like this.”

But, I agree that there are certain people who, like I mentioned before, they hold onto that old management style like it’s a one-size-fits-all. It will work for every business, and it doesn’t, and it didn’t really so much in the past, and it doesn’t anymore.

And when you talk about the younger generation of workers who are out there, there are a large percentage of them working in industries in which they’ve never worked before or maybe not where their degree is in because they sought out those jobs and that culture of an organization that aligned with their own values.

Dr. Marie Gould Harper: And I think that is important and I think that’s why we’re seeing some of the large amount of numbers of people who have left the workforce. For example, in the beginning I wasn’t sure when this started, but I saw some figures, and some of the figures basically said, 4 million left the workforce voluntarily in July of 2021. Another 4.4 million left in September of 2021, and then at the end of the year in November, an additional 4.5 million left the workforce. That’s a lot of millions of people, basically saying, “This is not for me.”

With numbers that staggering, how do you think human resource departments, with the talent acquisition and the talent retention, how are they going to bounce back? What are they going to do? I hear they’re burnt out as well.

Dr. Stacey Little: Honestly, it takes just rethinking the way that we manage people and that we engage people, and this could be very trying. Like you said, the HR department is worn out as well. They’re getting burnt out as well because they’re getting pulled in both directions.

But everything has to start with this culture that I mentioned before. We think about why people are leaving. They want better work-life balance, they’re not getting recognized for a job well done, their values don’t align with the culture, they don’t have a strong relationship with management or with their peers, they don’t feel engaged with that company. And I think that managers and human resource managers, they’ve got to prioritize what’s important to the employees.

If we go back to your example of saying, “We’re going back to work full force. Everybody needs to be in the seat,” we’re not giving them the flexibility that they desire. So to show a level of trust and a level of commitment, maybe they could do something a little bit different or try to reimagine what their work would look like.

So you can see now that some companies are going totally virtual, or they may say, “We come in one or two days a week.” And they need to make the employees feel that, they’re not scared if they have to stay home because they have a sick child or their children’s school gets canceled for a week or two weeks, or even a semester, or they have an ailing parent that they need to care for. They need to trust the human resource managers. They need to trust their managers, that they’d still have their job if this came up. They shouldn’t have that, being scared to have to call in for work.

Dr. Marie Gould Harper: Yeah, I totally agree with that and in another article, there was one statement that stood out. I’m going to share it with you and let’s talk about it for a few minutes. “Employers drove workers to quit.” That’s a powerful statement.

It’s basically saying that, there were opportunities to change the culture and to turn things around, and to have a smooth transition, but it seems as though, that there are some teams in the decision making role that made decisions that worked best for them, versus what worked best for their workforce. Do you have any comments on that?

Dr. Stacey Little: Yes. I think that some of this, it could’ve been turned around, but maybe not all of it because the nature of the business. Depending on the nature of the business, maybe the business is open 24/7. People who come in entry level, they get the schedule that they don’t desire. There’s just some things like that, that come into play, but there are some things that could’ve been done, and most of them are things that we’ve already mentioned.

The most important thing, too, besides culture that I think that we could do to help retain the people who work for us, is to value their growth and development. Because sometimes if an employee thinks, I don’t see a future here, it’s because either, they’re not able to be innovative, they can’t grow, or there’s not a place for them to move or advance.

And I can see where some employers feel like, “Wow, I could develop them to a point, they might leave me and they’ll work for somebody else.” But if you have that culture of growth and development and you apply it to all of the employees in the organization, if that person leaves, you have someone else to take their place because you’ve developed them.

Like I said, there’s some of it that could’ve been avoided with some of these tactics that I’ve shared, but there’s some of it that couldn’t. So there are people who are just, they’re entrepreneurs. And this pandemic, it created an environment where we could introduce new products and services. And so you take that person who is like, “Wow, I’ve always wanted to work on my own. I’ve wanted to start my own business. I have this idea.” They may have left anyway. So, there’s those instances where, you’re going to have attrition, you’re going to have normal attrition, but there’s also things that you can do to retain, at least some of the employees.

Dr. Marie Gould Harper: Okay, as soon as you opened up that can of worms, my head exploded. I went in all types of directions and I’m going to try to keep focused and put them under one category, and that is reflection. There are individuals that I have spoken with who have, basically told me, when we had the lockdown, it was an opportunity for them to think about what was important in life and what they valued.

And for a lot of people, the workplace was not high on the list. People started to think about, “How can I change, transform my life, so that I can be happier, more fulfilled?” Some of the problem was that people were doing jobs that they didn’t like. This was an opportunity to come up with a plan to transition to something that they felt was more fulfilling because the employer could not do it.

Now, I wouldn’t put all the blame on the employer, and state that they didn’t have a successful or meaningful career development system in place, but what I am saying is that, people had the opportunity to think about themselves, where they were in their lives, what made them happy. And with that thought, some of the traditional career paths looks at positions and, basically, starts to plan according to what is the next step up. Versus involving the employee in the process of, what would make sense for your next step? Because it’s not always up. Sometimes it could be a lateral move in another area to gain a skillset that makes more sense.

Some of the other things that employees have said was that, the opportunities that they saw were at another organization, not because of the content or the requirements of the job, but an opportunity to go into another culture.

So, we’re seeing the importance of how culture is a big player in how employees make their decisions about jobs. I agree with you, some of the jobs cannot be remote jobs. I’m thinking of the restaurant industry. Now, I live in an area where everybody likes to eat, so our restaurants did not suffer, but what I did see was that the management teams came up with different formats that appealed to the consumers that were purchasing the products. Do you think that same level of creativity is needed in your traditional organizations, your office organizations, even higher education?

Dr. Stacey Little: Yeah, I most certain think that is. The creativity is so important. The innovation is so important because if you don’t reflect and you don’t think about it as an organization, your competitor will. And some of the best ideas will come from the employees, as people who are frontline, and come from your stakeholders, your customers.

So, not making all of the decisions at the top, but letting your employees be creative, provide input, and that goes hand in hand with the retention as well. So, not only does it help an organization be successful and be innovative and appeal to their customer, it makes the employee feel engaged and want to stay with that organization.

Dr. Marie Gould Harper: If you were a consultant to the senior teams of many of these organizations, what type of advice would you give them right now?

Dr. Stacey Little: Honestly, I’m going to keep harping on that, the job market, it’s out there for the employees, they can go anywhere and it may not even be in the same field. That culture, that leadership commitment to flexibility, that we don’t feel like one-size-fits-all, that I have to give them the same schedule. Maybe Stacey needs part remote and part in the office, and Marie needs totally remote, and we’re open to that.

If our business will allow that, we’re committed to growth and development and that we want you to grow and develop as an employee, even if we lose you, because we care about you. We’re going to listen to you and we want to listen to you and figure out how we can engage you better, how we can understand you better, and what you need and what you know that can help us be a better organization.

Dr. Marie Gould Harper: I like that thought and you made me think of another question. You’re making this a joint process. What would it take for employers, especially even the human resource department, to start to think of professional development of their employees, as in the short-term. And by that, I mean, we do have some employers who are afraid of, if they invest too much in employees, they will leave.

That shouldn’t be an issue who those of us are progressive because it’s like, we need to get work done now. We need to make sure we have a productive workforce, and that means looking at all factors as a whole. Do you think we will ever get to the point where companies can think of the professional development process in terms of the short term versus always focusing on the long term?

Dr. Stacey Little: If there’s a time, the time is now. Because those skills are needed and some different skillsets are needed. So, the time is now if they’re going to take that approach, and when you asked my opinion earlier about being consultant, if I was asked that as a consultant, I would say, “Don’t fear losing your employees, and then don’t burn that bridge.” If they do move on, you have a good relationship, you might have a relationship later that’s beneficial to your organization whether they come back as a consultant or they come back later with even more skills because they went to that other company for a couple of years. Even in times, normal times, people move on. So, we have to always think about what we can do here and now, what we can get done now, and like you said, be progressive with our organizational strategy.

Dr. Marie Gould Harper: Great. One other question, but I am interested in hearing your thoughts. I was having a conversation with someone about artificial intelligence, and how when we first started talking about it, the topic that came up was, people being fearful for their jobs, and what would we do about that, but that was years ago. We’re in a new time. We’ve had a pandemic. We have people who really don’t want to return to those old jobs. Do you think the fear factor is still a part of the equation or do you think some employees would welcome the automation because they don’t want to do the work because of the work environment and culture?

Dr. Stacey Little: So, even with automation, there’s always going to be that human factor that’s needed in most industries. And I do think that the mindset is changing some, that automation is being more accepted because there was a fear factor when there’s a lack of knowledge. The more we learn about it, the more we see. That point that I’m bringing up is, we still need that human factor in many instances and it shows how we can use automation to better the organization, but also not put so much stress and so many demands on the employee. So, I think, as more knowledge comes out about artificial intelligence, and the more that employees learn, they will be more accepting of it.

Dr. Marie Gould Harper: I totally agree, and I know you and Dr. Wanda Curlee are putting together programs that address this particular topic, especially as we move more towards a digital workplace. Do you have any additional comments on how you are preparing the students in your program for this new norm?

Dr. Stacey Little: Yeah, and this is something that I was hoping we might take this turn, but I thought this is also something that could be a complete different podcast on its own, when you think about education’s role and how that’s changed. Because this virtual and remote workplace, although it was there, it wasn’t so widespread, and it’s here to stay. And it gives us the opportunity to serve new learners.

So, we think about purposefully designing our programs and our courses for those learners, for different types of learners who might all be in the same course. When I’m thinking about the pandemic, I’m thinking about remote work, I’m thinking about virtual work, how does that change leadership? That’s always in the back of my mind. What do we need to put in our classes to prepare our leaders for managing people who might be remote, who you may never see.

There’s also demands for new skills from the workers because they didn’t work from home before. So, some other things that we might have to weave in our classes or have a new class about. And we really, I think, need to change our strategy where we focus on the skills more so than the degree, and I don’t want to devalue degree, I’m just saying, in our descriptions, here are the skills you will learn, so that the employee knows, and then when the employer sees on their resume that they gained these skills, they can see that there’s a match there.

And then, that demand for considering more short-term learning, like we mentioned before, if it happens in the organization or if it happens at an educational institution, those microcredentials that might stack later.

And then, finally, I think this is so important, that we partner with our students. So, if they’re coming for one class, how can we help you in the future? If you already have a degree from us, what skills do you need now? Since things have changed, that we can help you with, and we can direct you to that course, or could we even give you a small module from a course that might help you be successful in your job?

Dr. Marie Gould Harper: What you stated brings something to mind. One of our professors invited me to his class and we shifted to this particular topic, and I remember sharing a story, a personal story, where I was working on my doctorate degree and that’s what I wanted, but I also saw in the market, there was starting to be a need for online learning in my local community.

And one of the things that I did, I took a break from the doctoral program, went to earn a graduate certificate in online learning, and had the opportunity to work with about five or six institutions that wanted to get in the online market, but their professors, their full-time professors, refused because they did not see the value of online learning.

That was an opportunity for me and the institution I was attending had a setup where making that stop out to go to something else, they were able to accommodate it in their system. That’s why I brought up higher education for you because I’m thinking, in addition to corporations, higher ed is going to have to rethink how they educate the student, especially the adult student.

Dr. Stacey Little: Yeah, I agree, and I get some feedback sometimes from, maybe somebody who has been in the workplace for a long time, and they’ve advanced up to manager. They don’t have a management degree or they don’t need a management degree, and they’d advanced without the management degree, but they’re like, “I really…” kind of like you did, “I would really like to have a couple courses around this topic area, but I don’t want to seek a full degree.”

Or there’s people who come and talk to me and they’re like, “I don’t think I need this entire class. Do you have just a module on this? This would help me be successful. I already have a degree in this and we covered these areas.” So it is, it’s just about rethinking the way that we deliver courses or deliver material, and it may not always be a full course at a time, an eight-week course, a degree, a certificate. It could be something totally different.

Dr. Marie Gould Harper: Yes, you brought up a good point that I’ve heard non-academic people have a conversation on, and that’s basically, “Yes, for years, we’ve treated you as the author of knowledge, but now we want to be able to work with you on what we believe that we need versus going strictly by what you say we need.” And so, I’m looking for the changes in higher education as well because I think that shift is going to have to occur. Well, Dr. Little, I want to thank you so much for joining me today.

Dr. Stacey Little: Thank you.

Dr. Marie Gould Harper: We have been speaking with Dr. Stacey Little. This is Marie Gould Harper thanking you for listening to our podcast today.

Dr. Marie Gould Harper is the Dean of the School of Business at American Public University. She holds an undergraduate degree in psychology from Wellesley College, a master’s degree in instructional systems from Pennsylvania State University and a doctorate in business from Capella University. She is a progressive coach, facilitator, writer, strategist, and human resources/organizational development professional with more than 30 years of experience.

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